Tradition, Theology and Leadership

How Can I Call Myself Evangelical when Tradition Plays an Important Part in My Theological Method?

Robert E. Webber

In the first place, it is necessary to define the word "evangelical." The word is used in four ways: (1) linguistic; (2) historical; (3) theological; and (4) sociological. Linguistically the word evangelical is rooted in the Greek word evangelion and refers to those who preach and practice the good news; historically the word refers to those renewing groups in the church which from time to time have called the church back to the evangel; theologically it refers to a commitment to classical theology as expressed in the Apostles' Creed; and sociologically the word is used of various contemporary groupings of culturally conditioned evangelicals (i.e., fundamentalist evangelicals, Reformed evangelicals, Anabaptist evangelicals, conservative evangelicals). Each group has its own ethos, its own "popes" and authoritative methods of interpretations. The question really is: how can I as a member of the Wheaton community and conservative evangelicalism make a break with the fathers of neo-evangelicalism (i.e., Carl F. H. Henry) and advocate a method contrary to the authority they exercise over the evangelical subculture of which I am a part?

My answer to this question is somewhat complicated. Let me attempt to make it clear. It arises out of my method of doing theology, which consists of the following fourfold criterion of judgment:

  1. Is it rooted in the Scripture?
  2. Does it enjoy historical verification?
  3. Is it theologically consistent with orthodoxy?
  4. Does it have contemporary relevance?

In my opinion the conscious or, in some cases, the unconscious method of most evangelicals follows the same fourfold criterion as I have set forth above. The difference between us is located particularly in questions two and three. While my point of reference historically and theologically is the early church, most evangelicals make their historical and theological criterion in a much later time, say with the Reformation, with seventeenth-century orthodoxy, with Wesley, or with nineteenth-century Princetonian theology.

My contention is that theological thinking about apostolic uninterpreted truth is filtered through a system of thought (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Scottish Realism, existentialism, Whiteheadian physics, etc.) and that the system of thought itself is gradually treated as authoritative. Thus, the difference between theologians is not always over truth but is often over the system that delivers the truth.

I do not believe theology is an exact science. It is neither an inductive nor a deductive science, as some may argue. Rather, theological thinking is a discipline which involves concept formation and the development of a conceptual scheme. Theology makes use of conceptual models which may be drawn from extra-biblical sources.

Theology may therefore be defined as human thinking about truth. Truth is Jesus Christ specifically and the Bible more generally. People, synods, councils, and the like, who reflect on Christ and the truth, give us theology. Consequently theologians such as Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and Barth give us systematic thinking about truth which we call theology.

If this is true, it follows that the most conservative method of doing theology is to go back into history to a time when the tradition of faith carries the least amount of cultural baggage. Further, it means that all systems and persons who seek to be faithful to the original deposit are evangelical in the linguistic and theological sense. Consequently, I can affirm the evangelical nature of any one of the many different sociological groupings of twentieth-century evangelicals, the evangelical nature of the Reformers, and the evangelical basis of Catholic or Orthodox theology. The only groups within Christian history that are not evangelical at bottom are those who deny apostolic Christianity or those who so thoroughly reinterpret it through their conceptual grid (i.e., Gnostics, anti-supernatural liberals) that it ceases to retain integrity with apostolic intent.

In worship this means that any Christian group that uses the Word, prayer and the table at least has the basic elements of worship. However, when these elements of worship are filtered through contemporary cultural grids, such as educational, evangelistic, entertainment, or psychological purposes, the apostolic intent of worship may become lost. Consequently, the historical point of return to uncover apostolic intent is most likely not Wesley, Calvin, or Aquinas. Rather, it is best to get as close to the original source and intent as possible, namely, the Church

Fathers who sought faithfully to deliver the apostolic order, intent, and meaning of worship. Thus a return to the tradition of the early church cuts through later accretions and developments, exposing the ways in which they have departed from apostolic intent while at the same time reviving the current practice of worship through the rediscovery of the apostolic intent preserved by the Fathers. I believe this method is truly evangelical, in the best sense of the word. I advocate this method, not over minute issues of interpretation, but with regard to the big questions-theological matters such as the canon, major doctrinal issues, ethics, and liturgy.

Note: this article was originally written as the final section of a larger paper entitled An Evangelical and Catholic Methodology.

Robert E. Webber is the William R. and Geraldyne B. Myers Chair of Ministry at Northern Baptist Seminary. Prior to his current appointment Dr. Webber was professor of theology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and was chairman of the Chicago Call which met in I977. A layman in the Episcopal Church, he received his Th. D. from Concordia Theological Seminary.



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